District 194 School Board considering solar garden

Lake Marion Elementary s

Photo by Laura Adelmann
Lake Marion Elementary fifth-graders present their solar energy research to District 194 School Board members at a May 16 board meeting.

tudents present solar benefits

Lakeville Area School District 194 officials and some gifted elementary students are looking skyward in hopes of saving money on utilities.

Lake Marion Elementary fifth-grade students in the Discover gifted and talented program presented information about solar energy to the School Board at its May 16 meeting, proposing solar panels be added at the school.

The students researched and interviewed officials at other school districts around the state where solar panels are being used to offset energy costs.

Citing positive reports, students said adding solar would save money, help the environment and offer educational opportunities.

Principal Bret Domstrand and the school’s gifted and talented and STEAM teacher Kim Menard also advocated for the students’ proposal at the meeting.

It was the second presentation the School Board has had regarding solar energy in as many months. At the board’s March 21 work session, it agreed to consider bids from developers for a solar garden subscription.

While the solar garden could be located anywhere in Dakota County or an adjacent contiguous one, board members promoted leasing some of its property to a solar developer, possibilities discussed include Lakeville North High School, Kenwood Middle School and some wetlands at Lakeville South High School.

State legislators in 2013 mandated that by 2020 at least 1.5 percent of electricity sold by Minnesota public utilities be produced by solar energy.

Public utilities must also comply with the Renewable Energy Standard, which requires at least 20 percent of electricity sales originate from renewable sources by 2020 and 25 percent by 2025.

Power is the district’s largest utility expense; it has spent $8.8 million on electricity since 2012, compared to $715,000 spent on water and sewer and $2.7 million spent for gas over that same time.

Xcel Energy, the district’s primary electricity provider covering over 1.1 million square feet of space, received regulatory approval May 12 for a multi-year $185 million rate hike, some of which has already been implemented.

Sara Guyette, director of facilities and plant planning, said at the March 21 School Board meeting the district has been expecting more rate increases and encouraged solar garden development to reduce electricity bills.

She described the proposal for a 25-year subscription for which the district would pay a monthly fee to the solar garden developer yet to be selected.

Energy produced by solar would be sold by the developer to Xcel on the district’s behalf and the district would be credited for the power generated from the garden. The district would also gain a renewable energy credit on its bill.

Like a lease, the solar garden subscription cost would increase annually, which Guyette said typically ranges from 1.25 percent to 1.75 percent, but she said the district is receiving bids from solar garden developers and some have proposed 1 percent yearly increases.

District officials have considered solar power in the past, Guyette said, but did not move forward.

She recommended acting now because regulations have changed that limited the size of solar gardens.

“If we don’t get into a larger garden now, we’re probably going to end up in about 12 different small gardens,” Guyette said.

She will soon present developers’ proposals detailing subscription options and the savings the district can expect.

Guyette added she is also investigating similar programs offered by the district’s other power provider, Dakota Electric.

Board Member Bob Erickson expressed concern at that March meeting that the savings the district will receive are possible because costs are being dispersed to rate-paying customers.

School Board Chair Michelle Volk, a small business owner. noted changing technologies and questioned the business aspect of solar gardens calling it “a crazy business model.”

Erickson said utility companies have similar concerns about the legislative mandates.

“They would be the first to agree with you,” Erickson said. “I’m sure they would tell you that it’s onerous, problematic and in that fact between the wind and solar, it’s costing the rate-payers to subsidize the operation that we’re going to benefit from.”

Volk said she was “not totally sold,” on the proposal, but would favor it more if a solar garden were placed on district property, providing an educational benefit to students and a potential income stream.

She noted under the regulations, the district could only claim 40 percent of the power generated through solar, so the other 60 percent would have to be leased out to others.

At the May meeting, Board Member Terry Lind said he was impressed with the work the students had done and the quality of their presentation.

Domstrand, Lake Marion Elementary principal, said solar is a proposal the Discover students became interested in and pursued of their own accord.

“The students feel passionate about it,” he said. “It’s the generation they are growing up in.”